Monthly Archives: June 2010

Saying what we all think

One great thing about a newspaper column is I can criticize Barack Obama without jeopardizing my position and creating a spectacle of public humiliation. In this I do not resemble Lt.-Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

As in many other things, you may retort. Gen. McChrystal is a rock-hard warrior whose steely blue eyes drill right through you. Mine are the exact shade of brown that mystery- and action-story authors never allot to their heroes. When the general enters a room all heads swing toward him. When I do so the door swings. And when he was appointed commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the National Post reported that he only ate one meal a day “to avoid feeling sluggish”. I operate under no such restriction. But it is the first difference that matters here.

Much as I despise Barack Obama, he clearly had to relieve Gen. McChrystal for his idiotic words. But he had to do it properly. Once the general’s staff had openly derided “the wimps in the White House” the only way to contain the damage was for them not to live up to the characterization. And they couldn’t, for the obvious reason that it was accurate. Continue reading

A cancer on the political left

The reflexive hostility to Israel on the democratic left is becoming troubling. I think well-meaning progressives need to increase their vigilance in the name of decency.

Consider the ruckus caused by remarks in which NDP deputy leader Libby Davies appeared to denounce the very founding of Israel as illegitimate. Once her comments went viral, and her party commendably repudiated them, she wrote a letter saying “My reference to the year 1948 as the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory was a serious and completely inadvertent error.” But this explanation does not wash.

That her comments were serious I grant. But inadvertent? This was not some slip of the tongue like a right-winger shouting “Long live Communism” when they meant to say “Capitalism.” She knows 1948 was the founding of Israel, not a subsequent war in which it acquired “disputed” territory. And she had also broken with her party to endorse a boycott and sanctions against Israel. There is deep hostility here that, one fears, is uncontroversial among many of her associates. Continue reading

Save us from the technocrats

The other day I was asked to take part in an event benefitting the homeless. No, that’s not the punchline. It’s that I ended up getting rejected because I was unable to attend the mandatory technical training first.

Some readers may think my compassion needs work. But not, please, through the sorts of cybernetic techniques Robert McNamara applied in Vietnam. The result of such a technocratic approach is a form of insanity all the more chilling for being hyper-rational. Not merely in its manifestations, but in its foundations: a relentless determination to quantify everything, however inappropriate it might be.

Ironically, whatever compassion I might be feeling for anyone or anything was being simultaneously and dramatically impaired by another manifestation of this weird modern mindset. Did you know that it is government policy in this province that we not be able to see the lake from the deck?

I am not making this up, just fixing it up. You see, a building inspector recently came to check some changes to our cottage and, on his way by, condemned our existing deck as unsafe and required us to block the view. Continue reading

A magical classic turns 50

[First published on]

To Kill a Mockingbird is a magical book. That is the word. From the moment of its publication 50 years ago it radiated magic. To this day you may with confidence place it in the hands of anyone, anywhere, of any age, race or gender and know that if they do not love it, they have missed something transcendent.

The first thing to be said to clarify the magic is that its portrayal of childhood is wonderful. I mean this not as a stock word of praise from an author afraid of blundering stylistically if he writes “magical” again. I mean it literally: Mockingbird captures the wonder of childhood.

Once Scout and Jem befriend the visiting Dill, their familiar world cracks open with a series of delightful fissures caused not by the shattering impact of evil, though it surrounds them, but because it is expanding wonderfully and must do so. They are able to have a series of new adventures undreamed of before it all started yet somehow perfectly natural once they are happening. And this, to me, is one of the outstanding features of a good childhood.

I should interject autobiographically that I was fortunate enough to have a happy childhood including reading many books whose spell never entirely faded. Mockingbird was not among them, and when I first read it in my early 30s I was inclined to add to my very short list of regrets about my life that I didn’t read it as a kid. Try as we might to become again as little children, almost nothing that happens to us as adults seems to have that luminous quality of immanence that pervades a happy childhood, where every day or week may bring some new, unexpected wonder larger and richer than we have yet experienced.

On reflection I’ve changed my mind on that point. Part of the magic of the book for me when I did read it was its uncanny capacity to conjure up overpowering flashes of childhood (including the plan to lay out lemon drops that Boo Radley would follow “like an ant”). I believe I relished these far more for being an adult.

If all the book did was remind you of what childhood excitement felt like it might be at best a minor classic. But it did far more. It made sense of that excitement.

Mockingbird has had its share of detractors. Not just racists who objected to its obvious and compelling refutation of their position but critics and other authors who found it childish, naive, unworthy of study. At the risk of seeming all these things myself, I would suggest that their real problem is that the book is hopeful.

When a Virginia school board was considering banning it as “immoral literature” in 1966, Harper Lee wrote a stinging letter to the editor whose key passage was “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

That response underlines the two key reasons the book is so important. From an American, and especially southern American perspective, the book is an act of statesmanship. Not some Yankee ridiculing of mean rednecks, it was a key part of the redemption of the South, a reminder that however deep the currents of racism might run, there were other currents deeper still (a magic from before the beginning of time, one might even say) that were incompatible with it.

Generations of southerners, including Confederate soldiers, might have been at once honorable and Christian and bigoted. But it was an unnatural combination and in their hearts they knew it. Indeed, the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s depended upon finally getting white southerners to admit to themselves that they did know it.

This deep magic is not limited to time and place. In reminding white southerners of this thing they always knew about their particular situation, Mockingbird reminds all of us of the things we always know about our situation whatever it may be, knowledge we cannot evade but struggle to heed. Atticus Finch is not just a man who knows what he must do. Almost anyone can manage that. Atticus Finch is a man who knows he must do it, and does it, and we wish we were more certain that we were like him.

Atticus stands for truth against the mob. He faces down his own fears and therefore other men’s viciousness. He meets with triumph and disaster and treats these two imposters both the same, and so shows his children what the meaning is of a world that keeps opening new and marvelous vistas for them. And again I use “marvelous” with etymology aforethought: The world is full of marvels and Mockingbird knows it.

Its particular and often dark marvels make it to some extent a “coming of age” book. Within its pages we see Scout growing up a little; three years is a long time when you’re six and her childish conceits about “hants” and so forth become a bit more mature within its pages. Outside its pages, in part because of the flashback narrative technique, we sense what sort of adult she will become, in large part through the influence of her father and other adults, both good and evil. And thus we know that “coming of age” is not just a matter of growing bigger and more self-aware, or self-absorbed, while eventually discovering girls or boys.

The transition from childhood to adulthood is above all about morality, about becoming one of those who does take responsibility for what is right and wrong. In this context it has been suggested that Mockingbird’s “coming of age” theme is tragic, as the characters come to grips with failure. Such critics clearly missed the magic. What Harper Lee tells us in this story is that success and failure cast lights and shadows in this world but take place within us. Atticus is never a failure even when he fails. Nor will his daughter be.

If like Han Solo we explore the world around us we’re bound to see “a lot of strange stuff”. But that’s not the marvel. Nor is it real growing up. The magic, the expansion from childish wonder to the adult kind, is realizing that life means something, something incredibly important and boundlessly joyful: The fundamental structure of the universe is moral not material.

That is the magic at the core of To Kill a Mockingbird. And it has only gained in brilliance in the last half century.

Rationalizing homicidal aggression

One major lesson of history is that humans are frequently vile chumps. Unfortunately, because we are the audience as well as the topic, the lesson often fails to sink in.

I strongly suspect the same problem lies behind our frequent inability, or unwillingness, to draw obvious historical analogies. Presumably we all know exactly what to do the next time Hitler demands part of Czechoslovakia. But we nevertheless stare in bafflement, or worse, at North Korea or Hamas. Why?

Consider this luminous passage about appeasement I just encountered while rereading Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint’s 1972 book Total War for a seminar I’m teaching on America at war. “Hitler’s ravings,” the authors say, “were passed over and he was regarded as a man who would make bargains and stick to them because it was difficult to see what to do if he was really a totally different kind of person.” Continue reading